Paris, Osaka, and Memphis: My path to becoming Director of International and Global Studies
by Catherine Phipps, Director of International and Global Studies and Associate Professor of History, University of Memphis
When I think about my path to becoming the Director of International and Global Studies, three places immediately come to mind. Places? Yep, three locations around the world —Paris, Osaka, and Memphis—that serve as touchstones in my story and reflect my passion for the kinds of opportunities International and Global Studies can provide. How I came to this position is directly related to my own higher education and world experiences.
From early on, my education was entwined with a strong interest in international programs. I had studied French in middle school, in high school, and during my first two years in college. I had long hoped that I would get to visit Paris and try out my language skills there. Yet, when the time came for me to make a study abroad decision at the end of my sophomore year, I chose not to go to Paris.
Instead, a college class on East Asian religions led me to become fascinated with Japan, a place I’d previously known little about, and I unexpectedly decided to go to Osaka. In stark contrast to the relative fluency of my French, I learned my first Japanese word—arigatō (thank you)—on the plane to Japan. When spoken to in Japanese, my brain wanted to respond in a foreign language and it defaulted to French! But four months as a foreign exchange student in Osaka changed my life. I’ve been going back to Japan ever since, living there for about four years and returning as regularly as I can. This summer my own children got to meet the children of my host siblings, a symbolic charge to the next generation of exchange students!
Memphis, TN, USA
This fall marks my 14th year at the University of Memphis. I started here as an assistant professor, having just received a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in modern Japan and a long-standing interest in Japan’s connections to its Asian neighbors. My own research has been influenced by the “global turn” in academic studies and is concerned with questions about the kinds of connectivity that take place at multiple geographical scales. My first book—Empires on the Waterfront: Japan’s Ports and Power, 1853-1899 (Harvard Asia Center, 2015)—examined Japan’s ports system and East Asian regional maritime history during the age of imperialism.
In terms of my every day life in Memphis, I pay close attention to our connections. Whether it is through the university’s student exchanges and international programs, the city’s medical centers and businesses (including, of course, the truly global FedEx, which also has strong links to our campus), and the many annual festivals held in celebration of various cultures from around the world, it is very clear that there really is no “us” without “them.” Connecting with other people and cultures changes how we see the world.
After all, you never know how one connection might lead to another. Some twenty years after I ditched my first chance to go Paris and opted to live in Osaka instead, I was invited to be a visiting scholar at EHESS in Paris for a month. Even though I’d traveled to many countries during those decades, I still had never been to France. My French language skills had long been replaced by Japanese, but I was thrilled to go. Who would have guessed that the choice to study abroad in Japan would not only lead me to Memphis, it also, finally, took me to Paris!
My academic and personal experiences have made me passionate about helping students find their own world connections. I’m thrilled to be the director of this program and promote the study of International and Global Studies. We are all on this planet together and the more we can understand one another—how we got to this moment (think history), how we interact (think politics, economics, anthropology), and what we can do better (think environment, human rights, communications)—the better off we’ll all be.